The Islamic Jesus

How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims

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Mustafa Akyol
  • New York, NY: 
    St. Martin's Press
    , February
     2017.
     288 pages.
     $26.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781250088697.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Turkish journalist and writer Mustafa Akyol is probably best known to the larger public as a regular contributor to The New York Times International Edition or as the author of the book Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty (W. W. Norton, 2011)Now Akyol has published a book about The Islamic Jesus, joining a steady stream of Muslim interpretations of the person who is central to Christians, but important to Muslims as well. The author who is most often mentioned in this respect is Reza Aslan, whose Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013) caused some controversy. While the front cover of Akyol’s book presents his book as the Islamic approach that Aslan left unexplored, Aslan himself praises the book on the back cover. In the meantime, Muslim scholars Mona Siddiqui (Christians, Muslims, and Jesus, Yale University Press, 2013) and Zeki Saritoprak (Islam’s Jesus, University Press of Florida, 2014) published more specialized books on the subject. 

Even though Akyol is not a scholar of Islam or of the New Testament, his book has scholarly merit, and the International Qur’anic Studies Association even devoted a panel to the book at the annual meeting of the AAR and SBL in Boston in 2017. Most of the comments in that panel circled around Akyol’s choice to prefer a supposed form of Judeo-Christianism as a bridge between Jesus and Islam. This begins with the letter of James in the New Testament and continues with many heterodox groups in the centuries between the life of Jesus and the origins of Islam. The problem is that we hardly have any independent historical evidence of these Judeo-Christian groups. They are often mentioned by the Church Fathers in their heresiological discourses, but many scholars have pointed out that it is not necessary to accept independent communities of Jewish Christians since almost all of these views can be found in mainstream forms of Christianity as well. Others have pointed out that many supposedly Judeo-Christian points of view might have been constructed by their opponents. In a certain sense, Akyol tends to overload the rather flimsy and disconnected historical evidence that he encounters because he is glad to recognize so many Judeo-Christian elements in the qur’anic portrayal of Jesus. This gives the first part of his book a slightly apologetic flavor, yet as a Christian theologian, I must say that I like the sense of commitment to the Muslim community in Akyol’s book. The surveys that Akyol gives and the questions that he poses are interesting and sometimes even exciting; the fact that he construes a clear-cut story where the historical evidence is at best ambiguous might be a problem for scholars, but might move others to recognize important links between two religions that have been embattled too long.

While the first part of the book, at once a historical reconstruction and an apology for an Islamic Jesus, is rather contested in academic circles, the second part might be more contested among Muslims. In this part, Mustafa Akyol gives us a Jesus for Islam or, as in the title of the last chapter, “What Jesus can teach Muslims today.” Here Akyol builds on his earlier plea for a moderate Islam that promotes liberty and religious freedom. After a passage about the way in which Muslims could profit from a better knowledge of Jewish and Christian sources, he summarizes the lessons that Muslims can take from Jesus in two interesting catchphrases: “the Caliphate is within you” and “the Shariah is made for man.” In short, Akyol has written a book that shows the importance of Jesus as prophet and teacher between Christianity and Islam that never forgets Jesus’s Jewish background.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Pim Valkenberg is Ordinary Professor of Religion and Culture at the Catholic University of America.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mustafa Akyol is a regular columnist for the Hurriyet Daily News, Al-Monitor.com, and the International New York Times. His book, Islam without Extremes, has been reviewed and quoted by The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Washington Post, NPR, The Guardian, National Review, and Washington Times. Akyol has appeared on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on CNN, Hardtalk on BBC, and TED.com. Islam without Extremes was long-listed for the 2012 Lionel Gelber Prize literary prize.

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